05:15am Thursday 27 February 2020

New virus implicated in head and neck cancers

The breakthrough comes as USC’s Laboratory for Developmental Genetics confirmed the human cytomegalovirus (hCMV), a herpes virus found in the mouth, acts as a catalyst for salivary gland cancer and could have a role in the development of other cancers, including mouth cancer.

The cytomegalovirus is incredibly common, as most of the population carry it. In healthy patients with normal immune systems, the virus becomes dormant and resides inactive in the salivary glands. Although scientists could not confirm what triggers the virus into becoming cancerous, they believe the discovery could lead to more efficient treatment of the disease.

The study, published in the journal Experimental and Molecular Pathology1, conducted by professor and lead author Michael Melnick, explains how the virus joins a list of fewer than ten cancer-causing viruses (oncovirus) scientists have confirmed and linked to various kinds of cancer.

The list also includes the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a known cause and risk factor for mouth cancer and cervical cancer.

Like salivary gland cancer, mouth cancer is often presented late greatly affecting survival rates. Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, believes this is a key breakthrough in the fight against cancer.

Dr Carter said: “This is potentially a very significant discovery and could have large implications in the treatment of salivary gland cancer.
“HPV is becoming increasing prevalent as a cause of several cancers. Figures show 50 per cent of sexually active men and women contract HPV at some point in their lives, yet awareness of this sexually transmitted infection is lower than other common sexually transmitted infections.

“If further tests can prove a direct link between this virus and mouth cancer, new prevention and treatment methods can be introduced which may minimise the need for invasive facial surgery, which often severely diminishes the patient’s quality of life.

“During November, the Foundation works to raise awareness of mouth cancer through Mouth Cancer Action Month. Through the campaign the Foundation hopes to improve awareness of the risks involved in developing the disease, as well as the tell-tale symptoms people should check for. Our message to everyone is ‘If In Doubt, Get Checked Out’.”


Editor’s notes

1. Melnick, M., Sedghizadheh, P P., Allen, C M., and Jaskoll, T; Human Cytomegalovirus and Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma of Salivary Glands: Cell-Specific Localization of Active Viral and Oncogenic Signaling Proteins is Confirmatory of a Causal Relationship; Experimental and Molecular Pathology, doi:10.1016/j.yexmp.2011.10.011.

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